The Cold War Ends in Europe (page 2)
The Cold War Ends in Europe
To the Western world, communism appeared to collapse almost all at once. In fact, there were different degrees of communism in the Eastern European nations. In some nations the level of authority was much harsher than others, and some began an active fight against communism sooner than others. By 1990, all the Communist governments of Eastern Europe had fallen.
In 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland became Pope John Paul II—the first non-Italian to hold the Church’s highest office since the early 1500s. In the wake of his election, Poland became the focus of a great deal of international attention. This played a significant role in bringing about political reform.
Beginning in 1980, soaring prices led Polish laborers to stage a series of strikes and to demand the right to form trade unions. The Polish government gave in to the workers’ demands in September, and the workers formed Solidarity, a national council to coordinate independent trade unions. Solidarity members created a list of demands that made it clear they wanted real reform, not just higher wages: a union’s right to strike, freedom for dissenters being held in prison, and the lifting of censorship. Dock worker Lech Walesa, who headed Solidarity, would later become the president of a democratic Poland.
The Polish government was naturally hostile to Solidarity, which had made itself a national political party rather than just a labor organization. Despite an outright 1981 ban on Solidarity, the political tide had turned in Poland. By 1989 the government was forced to legalize Solidarity once again, and the party swept the elections held that year. Combined with Gorbachev’s public withdrawal of Soviet influence in Iron Curtain nations, the Communist Party in Poland was thrust aside for good.
Although several years of Stalinist repression had followed the 1956 rebel- lion, Hungary had been gradually flexing its political muscles since the Soviet thaw of the early 1960s. In 1968, Hungary announced the New Economic Mechanism, which moved state controls on the market and allowed for free enterprise. Karol Grosz, who took office in 1987, supported Gorbachev’s policies of openness and greater political freedom. With the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet interference in Hungarian affairs, Grosz ordered the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria. This was the first official lifting of any part of the Iron Curtain, and it caused an immediate flood of Eastern European immigrants into Hungary and across the border.
In the wake of Communist crackdowns meant to prevent the workers from uniting in imitation of Solidarity, popular demonstrations occurred in the streets of Prague and other cities in the fall of 1989. In a series of events known as the Velvet Revolution, the Communist premier Gustav Husak resigned and was replaced within the month by the democratically elected Vaclav Havel. Alexander Dubcek, the hero of the 1968 Prague Spring, became the head of the Czechoslovak Parliament. Longstanding ethnic hostility between Czechs and Slovaks caused the 1993 separation of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia (also called the Slovak Republic) and the Czech Republic.
Perhaps the most emotional and dramatic moment of the entire Cold War came on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Gorbachev had visited East Berlin in October. As he watched the East German crowds during an outdoor ceremony, he was amazed to hear them calling to him by name, appealing for help against their leaders. This was all the more astounding as the crowd was made of handpicked Communist Party activists. Clearly, the days of Communist rule in East Germany were numbered. A police crackdown took place a few days after the demonstration, but the government realized it could not stem the tide of popular resistance any longer.
Travel restrictions were relaxed in early November, and on the evening of the ninth, one ill-prepared official, flustered by a reporter’s question, announced that the new rules would “immediately” take effect at the border. East Berliners flooded to the wall checkpoints in such huge crowds that the guards could not hold them back. By midnight, young Germans were attacking the wall on both sides with sledgehammers and pickaxes, clambering to the top and pulling up their friends to dance and cheer alongside them. Berliners poured freely through the Brandenburg Gate in both directions for the first time since 1961. During the following weeks, border restrictions throughout Eastern Europe were removed, and easterners could freely travel to the West once again. In 1990, East and West Germany were officially and formally reunited under one government. After nearly fifty years, the Iron Curtain had come down.
Marshall Tito was a Communist, but he had such independent ideas that the Comintern actually expelled him from the Party. Tito governed Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980, managing to keep the mutually hostile forces of ethnic nationalism under control. In the great revolutionary year of 1989, however, civil war broke out, with Serbians wanting to dominate the power structure of the nation and Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Bosnia agitating for independence and self-determination. Fierce fighting among the various ethnic groups—Serbs against Croats, Bosnians against Serbs, Albanians against Serbs—continued through 1995. By 2008, Yugoslavia had broken into inde- pendent states—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia.
The Breakup of the Soviet Union
The USSR had instigated the Cold War; fittingly, it was the last European nation to let go of Communist rule. In 1991, Party leaders attempted a coup against Gorbachev, who had been losing popularity due to a severe economic crisis and the Communist Party’s dismay at the loss of influence in Europe. Additionally, the Baltic republics had been agitating for self-determination.
The actual coup attempt was inept and an embarrassing failure; however, it gave the western republics the opportunity to seize their independence. Gorbachev realized that he could no longer hold the Soviet Union together. In late 1991, all the Soviet republics became independent nation-states; all except Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia formed an association known as the Common- wealth of Independent States (CIS). This association was intended as a successor to the USSR, which was officially dissolved on December 31. Members of the CIS are entirely independent, self-governing nations. The CIS unites them for purposes of security, economics, internal and external trade, and justice.
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